Visiting abandoned cellar holes...becoming a true local in New Hampshire

I had a little ping in my inbox that caught my eye last month.  It was from a charming inn called The Hancock Inn.  Hancock, NH is one of those quintessential New England villages that just defies the march of time.  Life there seems to be in eternal repose.  At first glance, this little village seems to be slumbering away quite peacefully, however I learned that there are layers of activities as well as an abundance of passionate people buzzing just underneath the sleepy veneer of this charming part of the Monadnock region of New Hampshire.  

Recently, what caught my attention are a summer series of "history walks" being offered by the inn. Each month a gathering of enthusiasts will meet at the inn, depart for historical walks that involve learning why abandoned cellar holes exist and who left them, delving into historic cemeteries to hear whispers of stories that made up the lives of early settlers, indulge our tastebuds by learning about signature foods of New Hampshire like baked beans and clams, and finally a trip to trek through protected lands to see how blueberries came to be cultivated as an important crop of this state.

I thought these history walks would be a great way to meet locals of New Hampshire, make new friends, and have a really good time getting to know our new home state.  And after going on my first walk with the group...I was right!

It was a great way to do all three of those things.  The April gathering exceeded my expectations.  The entire day was filled with meeting fabulous people, enjoying the outdoors, and dining on exquisite meals.  

After  listening to the history tour on the morning walk, we met up again that evening back at The Hancock Inn for a delicious gourmet dinner.  We were entertained during the dinner by another guest speaker, Henry Walters, a renowned poet from Dublin, NH who led us through poems of Robert Frost.  Henry  walked us through how Robert Frost often wove themes of impermanence into his writing.  Many of his passages made us reflect on how each of us currently are weaving a tapestry of events in this time period  for others in the future to look upon and wonder about.

I have been excited to get here to "Thyme" to talk about the experience.  I am looking forward with delight to the next several months of gatherings.  I continue to  feel like our move here was just the right decision for us.  The more we get out there and play in this state...the more I continue to fall deeply in love with New Hampshire.

So this first historical walk was themed "No More a House...the Cellar Holes of Hancock".  We met on Saturday  morning at The Hancock Inn to meet our guide, Eric Aldrich.  

Eric works for the Nature Conservancy and enjoys spending his spare time researching the characters that populated the town long ago during the first period of settlement.  He was a terrific, engaging, and passionate guide that was a delight to spend time with during the walking tour.

By looking at the leftover granite cellar holes, Eric told us about his research into the early residents of New Hampshire, how they survived in those settler days, and why they left with only their cellar holes to tell the tales of their history.  

Ingredients for Sautéed Cod with Pea Cream Purée

When we all arrived in Hancock, the sleepy little town was gently coming alive with soft murmurs of activity.  A jogging group was just beginning their morning sweep through the town's tree lined lanes that are bordered by quaint little white fences.  Clad in bright colored running gear, the running group was chatting happily while stretching for their run.  In front of the town church, a pair of volunteers were quietly raking the lawn. The rhythmic swish of the rakes created a pleasant sound.   Several people were just leaving Fiddleheads Café cradling cups of hot coffee that left trails of whispy steam behind them as they moved off up the street to enjoy a quiet Saturday morning.

With hiking boots laced up and warm jackets on to ward off the spring morning chill, we caravanned deep into a patch of woods outside of Hancock in order to begin our hike.

Just the walk itself into the woods was delightful.  The air was fresh and sweet with the promise of spring just around the corner.  We had a brilliant peacock blue sky overhead. The blue sky burst through the feathers of pine branches overhead to dazzle us with the natural beauty that is a forest.   The crunch of the twigs and branches underneath  hiking boots could be heard amidst the banter of a group of happy people celebrating the end of a long winter with a perfect morning walk. 

Images of Hancock, New Hampshire

Eric took us from one leaf covered cellar hole to another.  Each hole was structured with huge boulders of granite.  He talked about the family that lived there, how they survived the harsh New England winters and what made them abandon their homes.  

Millwork employed many people in the region.  Much of the land and forest we were walking through was actually rolling hills that were more pastoral and open and much less forested and woody.  When much of the wood was cut down and used up for the milling industry, families packed up and moved further west looking for more work, leaving behind their granite anchored farmhouses to give us glimpses into their lives during this time period.

Images of Hancock, NH

These families left behind clues as to how they constructed their homes, how far apart they lived from their neighbors and generally how life was mostly about survival, keeping warm, and managing livestock from one season to the next.

What I enjoyed in particular was the camaraderie of the group.  There was lots of laughter, swapping of stories, and appreciation for the culture and heritage of New Hampshire.  Each person in the group contributed their knowledge and experiences about their own role in preserving so many things that make this area of the country so beautiful and unspoiled.

Being outdoors most of the morning, observing swollen buds everywhere on the cusp of blooming into an impending palette of spring beauty, inspired me to think about spring harvests, spring recipes, and seasonal meals.  I itched to get into my kitchen and put together a meal that symbolizes the change of seasons from winter to spring.

Sautéed Cod with a Pea Cream Purée

Everywhere I drive in New Hampshire, there are signs of seasonal delights about to come. Farm stands are being unshuttered and signage is popping up and being dusted off promising fresh produce coming soon.

Nurseries are quietly moving out trays of spring violets and readying to empty out their greenhouses of container pots in which sprout little shoots of cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, and rhubarb.

Farm animals are making their way back out into the fields.  On the way to the hike, I saw young lambs basking in the early morning sun rays and horses that looked friskier as they moved from barn to field to stretch their limbs after a long winter indoors.

I thought about spring cakes, spring herbs, and all manner of seafood dishes that are popular in this area.  I love seafood so delving into New Hampshire plates that involve clams, cod, and lobster are beckoning me to give so many of them a try soon.

Sautéed Cod with a Pea Crème Purée

After the delightful history tour listening to Eric give us insight into the relics of cellar holes left behind by early settlers, I looked forward to the second half of the day.

We all scattered to wash up, put on pretty clothes, and then return that evening for a continuation of  hearing stories, through the writings of Robert Frost, about the passage of time through an era...all while enjoying a beautiful dinner at The Hancock Inn.

Images of The Hancock Inn, NH

After getting settled into our beautiful and stately room in the John Hancock Suite, Patrick and I made our way downstairs in the inn to the dining room to gather again with the other guests, sip on cocktails, and sit around a large table to begin the enjoyment of a  pleasant evening together.

The Hancock Inn, New Hampshire

For an appetizer, Patrick ordered the bruschetta which came with venison loin, cranberry mayo & pickled beets.  I sampled his selection and it was delicious. The toast was crisp, there was just enough spread to add flavor but not overpower the tender velvety venison.   I ordered the Gillfeather turnip soup flavored with sausage, dill & caraway.  I was very impressed with the flavors of the soup.  None of the flavors dominated the other and the blend of soup had layers of taste that constantly made me pause from chatting with my neighbor and focus on enjoying each savory spoonful.  

Henry Walters, a young and passionate reader, had us under his spell the rest of the evening as dishes quietly appeared and disappeared from the table.  Patrick and I truly enjoyed every minute of this event while dining on exquisite dishes, meeting incredibly talented people, and listening to Henry's depth of knowledge about Robert Frost's poetry.  

What made us look at each other throughout the evening and laugh and reflect is the fact that it has been a long road of parenting for the last 20 years involving  busy schedules, always impending deadlines to meet for something family or work related,  and rare nights out like this where we found ourselves completely relaxed and thoroughly engaged in an evening of pure enjoyment.  

Life is so good, indeed. We marked the evening by being fully aware of the beauty of life... yet the impermanence of life. We are fully aware and appreciate the fortunate circumstances that are allowing us to live life to its fullest at this time.  The poignant theme of our existence as carriers of history for a short period of time was not lost on us that evening.  

For dinner, Patrick sampled a dish made from local New Hampshire ingredients.  He had the  Vicuña Cocoa Husk & Salt Roasted Beef Eye of Round, Gilfeather Turnip Puree all honey braised with Mint Hollandaise spooned.    

I learned that Vicuña is a type of coffee bean imported by a little chocolate house called Vicuña Chocolate Factory in Peterborough, New Hampshire.  Gilfeather turnips are named after a Vermont heirloom root crop cultivated by John Gilfeather.  He was careful to cultivate a cross between a rutabaga and a true turnip to produce a soft flavored root vegetable.  

I ordered the Walpole Valley Farm Pork with Turnip, Apple & Cabbage.  It was a delicious locally sourced meal filled with flavors that remind me of New Hampshire.  Walpole is a picture perfect village located on the border between New Hampshire and Vermont.  Patrick and I sought out several farmhouses in this village to buy before we fell in love with the one we are currently in here in the Sunapee Valley.  

I would love to drive over to Walpole Valley Farms and learn more about their heritage pasture-raised pork.  They are a multi-generational family who own and operate their farm. Sustainable, humane farming practices are at the root of their endeavors.

The wonderfully relaxing evening could be personified by a slow released exhale of a soft and satisfied sigh. We all made our way up to our rooms to each fall into a slumber of contentment from an evening of pleasurable food, conversation, and company.

Unbelievably, after a night of feasting, Patrick and I somehow managed to thoroughly enjoy a scrumptious breakfast downstairs in the bright and cheery breakfast room.   The Inn offers several breakfast choices and we selected the Hancock Inn's "stacker".  It is an English muffin topped with a house made sausage patty, a locally sourced fresh poached egg, and Vermont cheddar cheese.  I have a hard time trying anything else on their menu because the stacker is so delicious.

We visited with the baby goats that live next door to the inn.  Holy cuteness!  They were frisky and hopping off of tree stumps while bumping into each other. When we come back next month, we going to sample the goat's milk cheese that is made next door by Main Street Cheese.  

At breakfast, we chatted with a young family looking to make a move to New Hampshire. They were currently on a house hunting trip.  I remember it was last September that I was sitting at that same table as this family on my own house hunting head filled with possibilities of change but not knowing if it would really come true.

I told them to hold on to their dream of buying an historical property and calling New Hampshire home.  They had fallen in love with a house a few doors down.  I do hope they make it work out as we were able to do.  We gave them all the encouragement we could over breakfast.

So after we journeyed home, up and over the Monadnock hills into the Lake Sunapee region which is overlooked by Kearsarge Mountain, we are now knee deep in raking leaves, pulling weeds, and tidying up our rambling farmhouse lot.  We have trees that need chopping and years of clearing that have Working off the delicious dinner and scrumptious breakfast was in order and the yard work was happy to provide much needed workouts.

But my mind was thinking about a spring meal in the works.  My neighbor just returned from Portugal.  Her husband just returned from sailing his sailboat along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to its new home in Portsmouth, NH.  Our other newly made friends have returned from a meandering tour of the Tuscany region in Italy.   

I'm making this spring meal for all of them so I can gather them together and hear the tales of their adventures. Mustard seed marinated cod over a bed of shallot and pea cream and white wine sauce topped with flavors of dill.  The yard is bursting with spring blooms everywhere and I cannot wait to embrace spring around our kitchen table and sit back to our own feast with new friends.  

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